Saturday, April 02, 2016

Cultural appropriation


I've seen one version or another of the current debate of white people with dreadlocks recently. Here's Dear white people with dreadlocks: Some things to consider by Emanuella Grinberg, if you haven't read one and are interested in catching up.

I feel there's an intelligent conversation to be had on the subject, but I don't think we, as a society, are up to having it.

My knee-jerk reaction is that cultures appropriate. Period.

But, of course, nearly any way you slice it, I'm of the dominant culture, so that's easy for me to say.

Here are the questions I have, though.

In the case here, as well as similar cases, part of the argument is based on dreadlocks having religious significance to some. As the linked article notes, this is not true of all black people with dreadlocks. For many black people, it is simply a way to wear their hair that pleases them. So, if those people using what is to some is a religious symbol to others as a fashion statement is ok, how is it substantively different when a white person does the same?

If offense is the issue with this, or any similar appropriation, where is the line? There are many jazz slang terms that have simply moved into the mainstream of speech to the extent that no one listening to me say something is "cool" even considers the origins, presumably to include nearly the entirety of black people I would be likely to speak to. Obviously, this never had religious significance, but it's an example I use, because the offense factor is near nil.

But as a starting point in checking my privilege, as it were, and examining if the cultural act I'm about to participate in is appropriation in a way that isn't acceptable, what kind of threshold should I consider to be the level necessary to make it essential to choose not to in order to avoid offense and what to simply avoid as it will cause too strong an offense in too many people?

This question seems relevant as I'm not sure the kinds of numbers we would think to throw out as reasonable or logical would be achieved on this issue. I've not discussed it enough to be certain, I'll admit, but that would be my strong impression.

I'm not necessarily specifically interested in this example, because it comes up about one thing or another in cycles.

There seems no guiding principal or rule of thumb here that guides person of the dominant culture to where they are simply taking part in aspects of our shared culture that are borne of the non-dominant subcultures, "Hey, I heard this record these guys were playing and it kicks serious ass!", or where we could be considered trivializing or mocking things that are considered important and unique. This is where, if there's a conversation to be had, the blame, blanket statements and knee-jerk reactions keep us from communicating on a level that gets us anywhere. We all have our defenses up.

I'm too punk rock to generally worry about "offending" people. I generally prefer it, quite honestly. However I don't want to idly hurt people's feelings or bully them either. I'm trying to consider the question of where these kinds of things fall before sticking to my knee-jerk answer, however I'm falling short of answers that help me understand.

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